Posts in: July, 2006

Spin Doctor

Author: Evan Kilgore

Genre: Thriller/Drama

Storyline: 1

Dialogue: 3

Characterization: 5

Writer’s Potential: 3

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A poor car-wash attendant thinks he’s dreaming of a life of wealth and goregous women, until he wakes up and finds out it’s real.


Ten years ago, 17-year-old ANDREW watches his father LOU make a drug deal with mobster ALEXANDER BOYLE. In the present, LEM BRENNER works at a car wash. He’s poor, his wife JULIA is fed up with him, and it seems most of his life is spent at a bar with friends OWEN and NEIL. When Lem forgets “date night,” Julia locks herself in the den, leaving Andrew to sleep alone. He has what he thinks is a dream of going to an exclusive yacht party, driving a Mercedes, owning a mansion, and sleeping with gorgeous NINA. Everyone keeps calling him “Tom,” and he runs into Alexander Boyle at the party. When Lem wakes up the next morning in the mansion, he realizes it’s all true. He also realizes gunmen are after him, though he doesn’t know why. He leaves Nina and goes back to his “real” life—except with the Mercedes, which he shows off to all his friends and co-workers. In the Mercedes he finds an address scratched on the back of a business card. This starts an investigation—at the address he finds WAYLAND, a singer from the party the previous night. Wayland doesn’t know who he is or what he wants and asks Lem to leave. Lem tries to piece together the events of last night, revealed through flashbacks. He also recalls through flashbacks the events of 10 years ago—getting into a car accident with his six-year-old son MATT and Lou’s son, Andrew.

To impress angry Julia, Lem takes shows her the Mercedes and takes her to the mansion. He claims an uncle died and left it all to him. Julia finds a receipt for the Olympic Hotel and demands an explanation. Lem lies, saying he wanted to give her the option of a mansion or a cheap motel. Later that night, Lem gets a call from Owen. Lem meets him at the bar, but when he mistakes an attractive girl for Nina, he freaks out and leaves. In the Mercedes, he finds a Caprice with a Gunman driving pulls up alongside him. This leads to a chase, which Lem narrowly escapes. Back at the mansion, Julia’s gone—she found Nina’s bra from the previous night and left an angry note. Lem goes to spend the night at Owen’s. He’s awakened a few hours later by COPS who have come to check out the noise. Lem leaves the others sleeping and sneaks out the back door. At his apartment, Lem finds an angry message from Julia on their answering machine. He also discovers it’s being watched by the Caprice. He sneaks away in the Mercedes and goes to the docks where the yacht party was held. He bribes the VALET for information, and he gives Lem Nina’s address. The Caprice shows up and Lem makes another narrow escape. He goes back to his apartment and has an awkward moment with Julia. Lem drives to Malibu to find Nina. She says odd things that imply she knows more about the situation than she’s letting on. Two Jeeps chase after them. Lem and Nina escape to the Interstate in his Mercedes. The Jeeps fire rockets at them. Lem takes a downtown exit, and Nina forces them to stop—right in front of the Olympic Hotel. He realizes Nina is probably in on the whole thing when he recognizes her shoes—a pair identical to one he saw at Wayland’s home. They come across Julia at the hotel. She’s not pleased to see Lem with Nina. They argue, and she stalks off. Lem and Nina take a cab to Wayland’s house and find it empty, abandoned. A MERCENARY comes to take them out. Lem manages to escape, but Nina isn’t so lucky.

Lem goes to the police, a SERGEANT DIETZ, to report getting shot at. Dietz points out Lem’s picture on a wanted poster, with the name “TOM GOLDSTEIN,” wanted in connection with the death of Alexander Boyle. Lem convinces Dietz that he has the wrong man—Lem isn’t “Tom Goldstein.” Deitz runs Lem’s license and grudgingly lets him go. Lem—at this point looking like a bum—manages to get a lawyer’s business card. He goes to a department store to buy new clothes, gets himself all decked-out and smooth-looking, and returns to the police station. He speaks with DETECTIVE GREGOR, saying he’s Boyle’s lawyer. Gregor doesn’t believe him. Lem returns to the apartment, where Julia shows him separation papers. She’s kidnapped almost immediately. The police bust in and search his place. They find the bloody knife that killed Boyle. They arrest Lem, who calls Owen and has him use Tom Goldstein’s financial resources to bail him out. Once out, Lem realizes several things: he actually did kill Boyle (but was set up), when he was in the car accident that killed Matt and Andrew it was because Andrew had stolen drugs from Lou that belonged to Boyle, they were run off the road by Wayland (who worked for Boyle)—and Lou is behind the whole setup. Lem finally has to spill the beans—apparently he told Lou that Andrew ran off to join the navy, and he told Julia that Matt was kidnapped. He admits what happened, then pins it all on Wayland (who’s helping Lou). Lou is so angry that he causes another car accident. Lem wakes up in the hospital, with Julia in the next bed. Nina shows up, explains that she helped because Lou was her father, and emphasizes that Lem should be paying attention to his wife.


On the positive side: the scenes at the beginning that establishes Lem’s character—his daily routine, his habit of lying, his marital problems, etc.—that all works pretty well. The reappearance of Julia periodically to continue that conflict also works, building toward that resolution where Lem can finally value his wife at the end.

However, this screenplay is packed to the gills with logic problems that render the story first incomprehensible, then just plain improbable:

  • When Lem wakes up to the sounds of gun-toting scumbags beating on his door and has to make a deft escape, why does he think it’s a good idea to take his wife back there? Especially when he didn’t even bother to remove the “evidence” of his infidelity the night before?
  • If I understand the basic conspiracy, it goes like this: to avenge his son, Lou wanted to not just frame Lem for Boyle’s death—he wanted to get him into a drugged state where he’d actually commit the crime. The ultimate goal, one assumes, is so that Lou can get some justice. It’s never really clear why Lou wants Boyle dead, why Wayland would go along with his own father’s murder, or why they’d send people to try and kill Lem when their main goal is to have him arrested and convicted of murder. Is that not their goal? If not, what’s the point of setting up the whole conspiracy in the first place? Why not just kill him?
  • In the same vein, what’s the purpose of providing Lem/”Tom” with a mansion, a fancy car, credit cards, etc.? All he has to do is exactly what he does: go back home, go back to work, realize this is a “fake” life. They go to great expense to get Lem to “accept” this fake life, but they don’t think he’d be curious enough about how he got this life to find out any information? Even if he isn’t, sending mercenaries to hunt him down seems like it’d make even the least curious person just a little bit interested in what’s going on with this fake life.
  • They also seem to provide him with just enough clues to put together the whole conspiracy, which seems like it’d be the antithesis of what they want. People going to the trouble and expense of creating an identity out of thin air would hopefully be smart enough to tie up loose ends like having key players’ addresses written down, hotel receipts in pockets, etc.
  • The mysterious house in the Hollywood Hills. It seems like an odd setup that’s never cleared up. Is this where Wayland actually lives? Did he clear out as soon as he knew Lem was on to him? As written, it kind of seems like an intentional layer of mind-fucking, but to what end? The visits to that house are some of the most helpful parts of Lem figuring out the conspiracy, so just what’s going on there needs to be made clear.
  • Sergeant Dietz scoffs at Lem for giving what he assumes is a fake ID. When he runs it and finds out it’s real, he gets angry but lets Lem go. He doesn’t think that, perhaps, “Tom Goldstein” is an alias? Or that “Tom” pasted his picture onto Lem’s real driver’s license (therefore all the information would check out)? Or that a guy accused of murdering a known mobster wouldn’t have the resources to plant plenty of legitimate-but-fake IDs in police databases? Why would Dietz let him go?
  • From the beginning of the script, it’s clear that Lem lies constantly, but he’s possibly the worst liar I’ve ever seen. It’s very difficult to believe he could have kept the charade involving Andrew and Matt going for any length of time. Even if he did—why? Obviously Lou is fond of blood-vendettas, but considering how easily he accepts that Lem was pushed off the road by somebody else because Andrew had his cocaine, it seems really crazy that Lem would keep it a secret. Lou could put two and two together and realize Lem’s telling the truth. Lem can feel guilty all he wants, but he wasn’t responsible for the accident. Even the police (who obviously handled the situation; Lou mentions a police report) didn’t find him responsible/negligent, so why the big cover-up? I’m not saying he doesn’t have to cover it up or lie about it, but (a) make him a better liar, and (b) make it clear exactly why he felt he needed to lie to both Julia and Lou about everything for a decade.
  • Big loose end: Lem actually did kill Boyle (didn’t he? if not, that’s unclear). So sure, he survives and unravels the conspiracy, but he’s still got a murder rap to beat. Considering he actually did the crime, this might not be easy.

Aside from this, another big problem pops up on page one: the short scene involving Andrew, Lou, and Boyle. It makes everything too obvious—we know it’s going to come back to those three in the end. By the time we realize Andrew is most likely dead in a car accident (which is obvious long before it’s fully shown to be true) and Boyle was murdered recently, the Lou reveal is pretty obvious. There’s nobody else it could be.

It seems kind of silly that Wayland is Boyle’s son, and as I pointed out it creates a logic problem as far as why he’d allow Boyle’s murder to take place. Making him hired muscle, willing to do anything for the highest bidder, makes it far more believable and loses the necessity for an explanation for why he wants Boyle dead; his only loyalty is to money, so Boyle doesn’t matter. It’s also a little too neat and tidy that not only is he Boyle’s son, but Nina is Lou’s daughter. It oversimplifies the motivations—both Wayland and Nina are willing to commit crimes (or force others to commit crimes) out of nothing but family loyalty? It diminishes their characters by not giving them any ulterior motives or shades of gray.

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Wicked Wonderland

Author: Michael Sean Conley

Genre: Action

Storyline: 6

Dialogue: 6

Characterization: 5

Writer’s Potential: 6

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]




A computer nerd retrieves a woman’s purse from a mugger and finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy to blackmail Hollywood celebrities.


A car accident happens outside a diner in downtown L.A., grabbing the attention of the patrons— except for JIM, whose gaze is planted firmly on gorgeous RITA. He witnesses an Asian woman, KITTY, steal Rita’s purse. He chases her down an alley, is nearly stopped by a group of three thugs who obviously work for Kitty, but he manages to grab it from Kitty and escape unharmed. He searches the purse and finds $10,000 in cash, a handgun, barcoded blood samples, a CD-ROM, two tickets to Bangkok, and a birthday card with Rita’s address written on it. He goes to check out her address, find it’s empty and being cleaned out by KEVIN, the building owner. He agrees to rent the apartment, using Rita’s cash to secure it immediately. Kevin explains that Rita just up and disappeared a week ago and hasn’t paid her rent, so he’s renting her place.

The next day, Jim is threatened by two menacing Cambodians—CHEY and SENG—until Kevin pulls a gun on them. They leave willingly enough, and Kevin explains that they used to live there, but he threw them out. In retaliation, they ate his dog. He says they’re busboys at a restaurant in Chinatown. Jim buys a cheap barcode scanner, loads software from the CD-ROM onto his laptop, and scans the blood samples. They belong to famous Hollywood celebrities. Later, when Jim returns from the laundry room, he discovers the locks have been changed—his keys no longer work. Rita opens the door, aiming a gun at Jim. She’s found the blood samples, but she also wants to know where her cash and guns are.

After explaining his intentions to return to the bag, she spills everything: she works at a high-profile blood-bank, the Cambodians put her boyfriend JOEY (he’s gone missing, and he’s Kevin’s cousin) in touch with a doctor who came up with this plan to sell celebrity blood to a sex club whose patrons get off on the “vampire” lifestyle—they could make thousands from one drop of a celebrity’s blood, so she agreed to help them steal the samples. Kevin arrives and explains that everything Rita thought about this vampire-club deal—“Wicked Wonderland”—is pure fiction. The real story: he, Joey, and Kitty figured out a method to create stem cells from blood samples, then create sperm from stem cells. They intended to use this to create celebrity babies and extort the “father” for huge sums of money.

Kitty’s thugs chop of Joey’s finger and have it, and the remains of Kevin’s dog, delivered to Jim/Rita’s place in a Chinese food container. Joey calls up, begging for them to do whatever Kitty wants (little do they know, Joey is actually on Kitty’s side), and Kitty wants the blood samples, delivered to her that evening. Later, Kevin tells Joey about “the Doctor”—the man who can make their blood-to-sperm process a sure thing—who is in Bangkok. Jim tells Kevin about Rita’s plane tickets. Rita announces that they have to go to Joey’s penthouse (his father’s a wealthy doctor who owns the blood-bank) to get the real blood samples—the samples in Rita’s bag are fakes.

They find a party in full swing, led by DOUG (the doctor) and his porn-star wife MINDY. It’s being catered by Kitty’s restaurant, with the three thugs waiting tables. After a fight that results in Rita’s kidnapping, they get to talk with Doug and Mindy. They show them Joey’s finger—now on ice—and Doug makes excuses and denies. They get the real samples, and they realize both Doug and Joey are involved in Kitty’s plan. Kevin and Jim head to Jim’s house—not Rita’s former apartment. Turns out, he’s a government-employed computer hacker who basically knows all about the plans. He decides to help them screw over Kitty by writing a computer virus for the blood-bank’s system that will trick Kitty into believing their fake samples are real. They drop the samples off at Kitty’s restaurant and get Rita back. Turns out, they accidentally gave away the real samples. They discover Rita’s ticket to Bangkok has been canceled—and replaced with a ticket for Kitty. They have to get the samples back before Kitty and Joey get on that plane.

This leads them on a high-speed freeway chase on the way to the airport, during which they discover the Cambodian busboys are actually in charge of the operation, and the thugs have Joey—killed—rolled up in a carpet. They’re assigned to dump the body. While in pursuit, Jim, Kevin, and Rita make a deal with the thugs—they’ll give all the money in Kitty’s bank account to them if they switch sides. The thugs agree, so they’re no longer a problem. In fact, they’re sympathetic to Kevin’s sadness over losing Joey. Meanwhile, Jim reports Kitty’s car stolen, so her Lojack locks her out of the car, which they’ve tracked to a warehouse. There, they discover that Doug is the “Doctor,” the man behind the whole operation. A deal has been set up for someone else to pay $10 million for all the blood samples. The trip to Bangkok is actually retirement, to a private island. After another gunfight, their problems are solved. Kevin and Jim are friends, Jim and Rita get romantic, Doug and Kitty get their comeuppance, and nobody gets the blood samples.


This script has a great first 10 pages—an absolutely great hook that reeled me in and generated so much positive energy that I didn’t realize until page 62 that, from page 11 on, not much had actually happened. The plot is overly complicated and there are too many characters, so the bulk of the script is written as long, stagnant scenes of characters delivering and redelivering exposition, revealing new plot developments, occasionally punctuated by pointing guns at each other. There are a few good action set-pieces, a few genuine surprises, but on the whole it’s a story with potential that needs a lot of work.

This story is pretty much a Hitchcock-style “innocent-man-stumbles-into-something-huge” plot. The blood samples and that whole plot are a big fat MacGuffin. Instead of standing around talking about the plot all the time, these people should be doing things—specifically, things that help to reveal their character. There’s some of that, but all the characters are still pretty thin, especially Jim. Part of this is by necessity, because he needs to remain mysterious until he reveals that he’s been tracking this deal all along; however, that reversal is pretty unnecessary and comes at the expense of developing his character.

Rather than concentrating so hard on the details of this blood conspiracy, the author should concentrate on the people involved: who are they, why do they do the things they do, etc. What’s the purpose of the Cambodians pretending to be busboys with a poor grasp of English? It’s made clear they don’t care particularly about the deal and don’t stand to gain much from it, and their loyalty is weak—so how do they feel about everything that’s going on, everything they’re forced to do, and why do they continue to work for Kitty? What’s at stake for them? As it stands, everything seems to come down to money matters. It could be a lot more interesting if their reasons—not the plot—were more complicated than money. As for the “good guys”—why is Jim so intrigued by Rita? Why are Kevin, Joey, and Rita so willing (almost eager) to involve themselves in criminal enterprises? Do any of these characters have any kind of moral/ethical concerns about this? If so, they should be addressed. If not, why? These are all questions that can be raised and answered in an exciting, action/conspiracy story—even within the action sequences themselves. Show us how clever Jim is, show us Kevin’s moral reservations, show us Rita’s grief over Joey’s betrayal, all while they’re trying to shoot their way into or out of places. If the last 110 pages are as interesting as the first 10, this could be a big winner.

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Borderline Crazy

Author: Michael Sean Conley

Genre: Action-Comedy

Storyline: 7

Dialogue: 8

Characterization: 7

Writer’s Potential: 7

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]




When a car is stolen in small-town Texas, the parking attendants who allowed the theft to happen volunteer to go to Belize and steal it back.


When internationally famous rock star BILLY JOE RACINE visits his hometown (Nowhere, TX), he has the valet service at the bowling alley he owns park his car—a gorgeous and rare black Lamborghini SUV. Instead of taking his parking stub, he autographs it amid a flurry of other autographs. EDIE, a parking attendant who once slept with Billy Joe before he found success (he barely remembers her), throws away his stub while her best friend OLLIE parks the car. Later, while Ollie has gone on a break, Billy Joe returns in silence. Edie retrieves the car, and Billy Joe drives off. Moments later, Edie realizes that it wasn’t actually Billy Joe—it was an uncanny lookalike who stole Billy Joe’s car, and the tape of his latest album. Billy Joe is furious, as are his A&R reps, and the bowling alley management, and the local police.

Police get word that the SUV is in Belize, but they refuse to get it. There’s no extradition, and the Belize police feel that unless a car is stolen in Belize, it’s not a stolen car. The Belize detective who found the SUV want a $500,000 ransom to return it. They balk. Ollie, who has lost his job, decides to volunteer himself and Edie to go to Belize and steal back the car—for free. Just so long as their jobs are reinstated and they aren’t charged with a crime. The police don’t like the idea, but that doesn’t matter much. Ollie and Edie book a flight to Belize. They find the vehicle quickly (rare as it is, it sticks out like a sore thumb). They tail the thief, QUIGLEY, until he gets out at a phone booth. Ollie rams their rented car against the booth so Quigley can’t get out. They easily steal the car (they have a set of keys)—and promptly discover a WOMAN gagged and bound in the backseat.

As it turns out, this woman—MONA—is the daughter of an influential man in Belize. She also got involved with Billy Joe on his last tour. She also looks uncannily like him—like a female twin who, with the right look, can pass for him. Turns out, she stole the car herself. Immediately they’re on the run—Quigley and his goon squad want Mona, REESE (an agent of Mona’s father) and his goon squad want both Mona and the car (they’ve been commissioned to find it by Billy Joe’s A&R reps), and COLONEL SANCHEZ (a Mexican federale) wants the car for the $50,000 reward posted by the insurance company.

The bulk of the storyline follows Mona (who initially thinks Ollie and Edie want to kidnap her, too, but quickly learns they just want to return it to Texas), Ollie, and Edie on the adventure from Mexico back to Texas. During this time, there’s a pseudo-love-triangle—both Ollie and Edie are uncomfortable to realize they share an attraction for Mona. They both fear for their heterosexuality, since Mona could convincingly look like a man but in attitude is a all woman. As things develop, Ollie and Edie’s brother-sister relationship blossoms into love in its own right, encouraged by Mona.

Along the way, they have a wild trip—setting fire to Sanchez’s marijuana field, accidentally winning the $50,000 top price in an SUV desert-race, finally getting across the border and returning the Lamborghini and his tape to Billy Joe, who himself is thrilled to be reunited with his lost love. Meanwhile, there are various subplots involving Quigley, Sanchez, and Reese. Sanchez seems to be under both Quigley’s and Reese’s thumbs, Quigley himself is working for Mona’s father. It’s a wild, strange conspiracy.

Everything turns out well, though—Ollie and Edie both get $50,000 (for the race and for returning the car) and fall in love, and order is restored to Billy Joe and Mona. Quigley, Sanchez, and Reese all get their comeuppance.


This is a solid, well-written take on the Hitchcockian “innocent people accidentally stumble into something more complex than they’ll ever know” plot. The first act is loaded with surprises, culminating with finding Mona in the backseat. The rest of it is more straightforward but is still loaded with action. The love triangle allows good character insight for all three of the main characters, and it’s neither trite nor overdone. It has a nice balance. The screenplay itself does well balancing the humor of the situation with the seriousness of the jeopardy. The dialogue is tight—clever, not overly expository, funny.

The only real complaint I have is with all the reversals involving the villains. It provides a reasonable amount of character development for the villains, but all three of them never really get past the second dimension. All the odd “who’s working for whom and why” stuff just seems like complications for the sake of creating an overly convoluted storyline. It’s wild enough having three sets of villains working to catch this SUV—they don’t all need to have business relationships with one another, except for healthy, adversarial conflicts.

Another mild criticism: Mona’s seemingly endless supply of improvised explosive devices. I love explosions as much as the next guy, but it almost makes a difficult journey too easy. The author finds better, more surprising and interesting ways of getting them out of jams later in the script—why not find similarly clever ways without IEDs?

These aren’t huge issues, and even as-is it’s quite well-done. I really enjoyed it.

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Why Isn’t Anyone Interested?

Went around to music stores with fliers advertising a revolutionary idea: a metal band that doubles as a barbershop quartet. Not something really weird like a hybrid metal-quartet. That’s just retarded. I’m saying, one night we play a balls-to-the-wall metal show at some depressing dive on the southwest side, then the next night we play a completely separate barbershop gig at a 4H club or old-folks’ home or something? Can you imagine how awesome it would be to find three other people with that level of versatility? We’d be unstoppable!

Sadly, I don’t think I’ll find anybody who’s interested. Except maybe my sister, but you can’t have girls in a barbershop quartet! All the songs are loaded with hilariously outdated sexism.

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Author: Craig Schwartz & Jacinthe Dessureault

Genre: Horror

Storyline: 8

Dialogue: 8

Characterization: 8

Writer’s Potential: 8

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]




On their way to a wedding, a group of friends become infected with spores that slowly turn them into zombies.


Six friends in their early 20s, on road trip from Albuquerque to Kingman, stop in a small desert town called Friendly when the driver, JAKE, thinks he hears a leak. Slacker stoner CODY plans to marry sensible girlfriend, KIRA; the wedding chapel is their ultimate destination. Unfortunately, there’s some tension: Jake used to date intellectual science queen LEE, but they broke up; they’re stuck together because Jake is Cody’s best friend, and Kira is Lee’s. Along for the ride are Jake’s sleazy stripper girlfriend, DIANE, and Lee’s athlete boyfriend STEVE. Jake and Lee don’t get along at all. Steve and Diane flirt constantly, increasing tension between all four of them. Even Cody and Kira have tension: his slacker ways interfere with her straight-arrow mentality.

On their way into Friendly, the group runs into a creepy OLD WOMAN and her equally creepy son, BOBBY JOHN; after first mistaking the group for “church folk” and then for Cub Scouts, the Old Woman gives directions and some insight onto the town-that-isn’t-quite-a-town. It seems, aside from an operating general store and a healthy Mormon church, there isn’t much more than a ghost town—or, as the operators of the general store (SHERMAN and JUDY, a friendly middle-aged couple) joke, a “Holy Ghost-town.” While the gang tries to buy beer at the store (unavailable in Friendly because of its Mormon influence), a blind Indian, LOMY, tells Lee that he’s cursed. She thinks he’s nuts. A local PREACHER and his assistant, SISTER RUTH, try to convince the gang to stay for services; the group leaves as soon as possible.

They make camp near the town, and Jake notices an abandoned mine in the distance. Jake, Diane, and Kira go to the mine; meanwhile, Cody, Lee, and Steve have found a silver trailer near their campsite. Music plays, but it seems abandoned. As the group in the trailer investigates, finding a lot of dust and a dead family, the group at the mine discover dust and a bunch of disgusting, tumor-like mushrooms. Investigating further, they find a dead den of Cub Scouts, covered in these mushrooms—dead except for one CRAZY CUB SCOUT, who pulls a gun on them, drags them back to the van, steals it, and drives away. Steve has been “infected” by whatever this stuff is, and he’s not doing well. Jake and Diane go for help back at the Old Woman’s house. In a murderous rage, she kills Diane and she and Bobby John both go after Jake. Meanwhile, Steve goes nuts and tries to kill everyone at the campsite. Lee whacks him with the tire-iron, while Jake accidentally forces Bobby John to kill his mother, then he impales Bobby John on a pitchfork. While escaping, he stumbles across the van.

Steve, tied up, regains consciousness. Lee starts punching him. He doesn’t understand why he’s tied up or why they’re all so angry and violent. Lee realizes Steve, whose nose was smashed by the tire iron, is no longer affected by whatever “spell” compelled him to try killing them. She thinks it’s pheromones—something about the dust they breathed in compels people to murder them. But why the mushroom-like spores and their airborne dust cause others to kill them when the dust itself is deadly? Answer: the spores don’t kill them—they turn them into zombies.

Jake returns with the van, and they start driving. They’re attacked by a hitchhiker they stop to help. He kills Steve, they kill the hitchhiker, but he’s done major damage to the van, rendering it almost inoperable. They’re near the town, so the go to the general store to call for help. They also try to cloak their scent, but they’re attacked by Lomy (whose blindness heightens his sense of smell) and his pet chihuahua. They kill the dog and keep Lomy out of the store. In the van, a zombified Steve comes back to life. The group gradually piece together that alcohol can stop and reverse the attacking dust. Since it’s a dry town, there’s only one place to get alcohol—wine at the church. Before they can go, they’re attacked by Sherman. Judy, meanwhile, tries to feed his leg to the chihuahua, but instead she’s killed by—the Crazy Cub Scout, who is now a full-on zombie. The group deals with Sherman in the store, then sneak off to the church. They ambush the Preacher, who tells them that their wine is non-alcoholic. Jake, having seen him drinking rum earlier, knows there’s booze somewhere. The only way to get it is to reveal themselves, and their scent, to the full congregation.

After he sees what their scent does to the congregation, he is fully cooperative in helping them not only get the booze, he supplies them with more guns and allows them to take his bus out of town. They just have to get there… Meanwhile, everyone who has died rises again as a zombie, Kira and Cody steal the one bottle of whiskey they have for the four of them, but they’re killed. Jake and Lee get it back and get on the bus, just as Jake succumbs to the black spores. It reverses the process and he returns to normal.


This is a well-paced, well-structured take on the zombie movie. The dialogue is effective, with strong wit, nice character voice, and heightening tension without being overly expository. Steve and Diane could use a little work, though—it becomes pretty obvious that they’ll be the first victims based on their lack of depth. If they had more emphasis early on, their inevitable deaths would be more surprising and have more of an impact. Thanks mostly to the dialogue that really defines the strength of the Jake/Cody and Lee/Kira friendships, the betrayal of Cody and Kira comes out of left field, but it’s completely within their established characters. It works well.

I’ll say where I thought the story was going as it headed into the third act, because I think it could lead to something very interesting and effective in a rewrite. When they figured out the alcohol secret, they realized the church was the only place to get it, and they also realized they would have at least a hundred people willing to stop at nothing to murder them, I thought it’d be a bloodbath. That poses a really interesting moral question, dramatically: are the lives of these four people worth the slaughter of so many? Would the main characters be willing to sacrifice so many others to save themselves? If they did, how would they react to the aftermath of such atrocities?

Like the rest of the script, a development like that would turn aside a lot of the clichés of zombie movies—taking the common “let’s shoot everybody” ending and saying, “Yeah, but they aren’t shooting zombies—they’re shooting actual people to save themselves,” and then dealing with the consequences. It’s a kill-or-be-killed scenario, and it’s kind of a win-win situation: gore, violence, exciting gunfights—all leading to deeper questions about the morality of their actions. It also ties into the overall theme of being “saved.” What’s the price of being saved, and is it worth it?

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Growing up, I spent a whole lot of time at my grandmother’s house. With both my parents working much of the time (at one point, my dad was working three jobs and my mom was working another), and my sister and I getting in trouble all the time, my mom decided to nip that shit in the bud by sending us to our grandmother’s house. My grandma had two dogs: Maggie, a black half-poodle, half-puli; and Pepper, a gray miniature schnauzer. I hated Maggie because when I was six years old, she bit my finger for no particular reason. But I loved Pepper. I’ll spend my entire life trying to reach a point where I can have my own dog, just so I can get another gray miniature schnauzer and hope that he’s half as awesome as Pepper.

Pepper and I were inseparable for a few years, but then my dad got a better job, so he could quit all three of his and my mom could quit hers and be a stay-at-home mom. We didn’t need to go to my grandmother’s as often (not every day, anyway), so I didn’t see Pepper as often. A few years later, he started getting decrepit. He went blind and started to go deaf. He never went nuts or anything like the yappy dog next door (which finally died, thank God), but it was pretty sad to see him always walking into walls or getting into wacky trouble because he couldn’t hear the call to “take a break” (which had become his command to take a fucking hike when he got annoying).

His death was pretty tragic for me, even though we only shared a close bond for maybe six months. But I still kind of miss him every once in awhile, which brings me to the ultra-depressing dream I had last night. I think it may have been prompted by Oy’s mournful behavior in The Dark Tower, because I’ve never really had such a vivid and depressing dream about a dog before. I think it was Pepper in dog-heaven—which looks suspiciously like the long, dark-wood, dimly lit, L-shaped hallway in my grandmother’s house—mourning the death of my grandmother. For some reason I was there, too (is this a sign of my fate?), trying to comfort his sadness, but he refused to eat, refused to play, wouldn’t let me pet him. He just slept all the time and eventually withered and died.

I awoke disturbed, but I didn’t think much of it until I tried to explain it to my sister. I realized my eyes were rimmed with tears and that this dream had had a more profound effect on me than I had originally known. I guess it just saddened and disturbed me that I was so thoroughly unable to comfort the depressed dog in his time of need. I think that reflects on my hilarious lack of sensitivity in my waking life. But as I look back on a life of cruelty and insensitivity, I do realize that I feel the most regret for a household pet in a dream that never happened and never will. Take that, people I’ve wronged!

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Black’s Sonata

Author: David Mango

Genre: Comedy-drama

Storyline: 7

Dialogue: 8

Characterization: 9

Writer’s Potential: 8

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]




Against the wishes of his heavy-metal family, a virtuoso musician gets a seat in the New York Philharmonic.


TREVOR BLACK, a 17-year-old high school dropout from a poor Brooklyn neighborhood, plays like a guitar god in a heavy-metal band called Black Plague. His father, FRANK, and older brother, RANDY, back him up on drums and bass. They’re truly terrible—Trevor is the only thing makes the band worthy. This is recognized by DON, the owner of two bars in Brooklyn. He books them on a three-month contract, four nights a week alternating between his bars. At an after-gig party at their house, mopey Trevor sneaks off with an old violin. He practices in an abandoned house next door. Frank sends Randy looking for Trevor; Randy finds him and discourages him from the violin. They get into a fistfight, and Trevor runs off.

On Park Avenue the next morning, Trevor ambushes MAESTRO LUCIEN ZALEM’s limousine. He’s the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and it’s made clear that Trevor has been begging him—writing letters, following him around, etc.—for a very long time. He wants an audition. Zalem breezes past him, and his limo driver threatens Trevor. Intercutting between that evening’s Philharmonic performance and Frank quitting his tattoo-artist job (greeted with gentle mockery from the owner) and yet another party at the Black house, it becomes clear that Frank has forced this unsuccessful heavy-metal lifestyle on his children from birth. Trevor has become rebellious in the ultimate way—by secretly training himself as a virtuoso classical violinist. Randy, meanwhile, has adopted a codependent mentality, making sure Frank doesn’t die when he passes out for the night, cleaning up the party, etc.

After the Philharmonic performance, Trevor chases Zalem’s limo for several blocks. He sees it stop at a fancy French restaurant. He tries to get in, but the Maitre D’ has him thrown out. Trevor sneaks in through the back entrance, making his way unnoticed through the kitchen with his violinist. He matches the restaurant’s house violinist note for note as he makes his way to a table where Zalem sits with first-chair violinist SERGEI KOLESNIKOV. He plays a beautiful sonata. Zalem is shocked but pleased, and Kolesnikov is instantly jealous. Zalem finally grants Trevor his audition, for the following morning.

Trevor sneaks back home and, in an effort to make himself look neater, cuts his long “heavy-metal” hair. Frank wakes up and is horrified by the new look. Frank also sees the violin, and they get into another argument. Frank throws Trevor out of the house and the band, and Trevor gladly leaves. A disappointed Randy realizes it won’t be easy to find a replacement guitarist. Trevor plays in subways and on streetcorners for spare change. He makes enough to buy a cheap suit from a thrift store, which he wears to the audition the next morning.

At the audition, Trevor meets Zalem’s intern, HANAKO GOTO, a beautiful 21-year-old violinist. Zalem has Trevor run through basic stuff: scales, arpeggios, and a piece of Zalem’s choosing (from memory). Finally, Zalem gives Trevor a sight-reading audition. Trevor asks what the piece is, Zalem tells him; Trevor plays a different piece from what’s written on the sheet music. Zalem realizes Trevor can’t read music, but he’s such a great violinist he’s willing to give Trevor another shot in two weeks. He tells Hanako to spend that time teaching Trevor to read music. Meanwhile, Frank and Randy put up fliers for a new guitarist.

KAWA AZUMA, an arrogant Julliard violinist, leads a quartet through Hanako’s graduate performance selection. Trevor listens to them play and gets into an argument over Kawa’s perception of the piece. They instantly hate each other. Hanako yells at Trevor for interfering. They do their music-reading lesson, and Trevor is frustrated at his inability to read the staff and play flawlessly. After Trevor leaves, Kawa yells at Hanako about him, ends up giving her a black eye. Trevor spends the night in a subway station, practicing music-reading as much as he can. He improves steadily.

Several days later, their practice room is taken, so Hanako sneaks Trevor into an old music archive in the Philharmonic building. Hanako feels Trevor has mastered music reading. She asks him how he can play so beautifully, and he explains—disappointed to realize he’s using his father’s phrase—that she has to feel it. He gives Hanako a few puffs on a joint to relax her. He takes Hanako to Brooklyn, to an old heavy-metal bar in his neighborhood. He gets her some liquor and shows her the raw, wild emotion of the bands. They’re not great musicians, but they have energy and passion—the one thing her technically flawless violin playing needs.

Hanako sneaks Trevor back into her dorm at Julliard, where she’s accosted by Kawa. Trevor takes the opportunity to pound Kawa’s face. Trevor and Hanako kiss—Hanako’s first. The following morning, Trevor arrives for his second audition. The orchestra practices, so he’s forced to wait. Kolesnikov can’t play the piece, which he blames on the percussion. Zalem gives Trevor his audition, in which Trevor is asked to sight-read the second violin part of the same piece Kolesnikov had trouble with. Trevor plays it flawlessly; Zalem offers him a seat in the orchestra.

Thrilled, Trevor runs off to Scarsdale to tell his mother, ZOE, who wants nothing to do with Trevor and wants him as far away from her house as possible—she has a new life, a new family. Depressed and dejected, Trevor mopes his way back to Manhattan. Meanwhile, Frank and Randy—after a series of unsuccessful auditions—have found a great guitarist. Unfortunately, he has a habit of urinating on the audience, which loses Black Plague their contract with Don. That night, Trevor arrives for his first Philharmonic rehearsal. He embarrasses himself by not knowing the protocol of where to sit, when to tune, etc. He also commits a faux pas by announcing that he can play a particular first-violin part when Kolesnikov has trouble. It angers both Zalem and Kolesnikov. Trevor complains to Hanako that he doesn’t feel like he fits in; Hanako tells him not let them intimidate him.

Twenty minutes before Trevor’s first performance with the Philharmonic, Randy tracks him down to announce that Frank’s in serious trouble—he was hospitalized after overdosing. After talking to the doctor and finding Frank’s in a coma he’ll probably come out of, Trevor and Randy go back home. Randy shows him a surprise gift from Frank— an electric violin, hand-built by Frank using Trevor’s guitar pickups. Touched, Trevor plugs it into an amplifier and plays around with it. Soon after, Frank awakens from his coma. Trevor and Randy are there, but they immediately get into an argument when Frank—initially proud of his son getting into the Philharmonic—learns that Trevor won’t have time for the band anymore.

Hanako performs her final exam; she plays brilliantly, perhaps as well as Trevor, thanks to his advice about playing emotionally. In the audience, her father—himself a famous San Francisco conductor—approves of her and her playing for the first time in her life. Thrilled, Hanako rushes off to Brooklyn to find Trevor. She also tells him that since she’s done with school, she’ll be leaving for San Francisco. When Hanako tells Zalem she’s leaving, Zalem is angered by the reviews of the preceding night’s awful show. He tells her Kolesnikov has announced he has carpal tunnel syndrome, and Zalem isn’t sure what to do: give a chance to this new violinist who’s brilliant, or allow Kolesnikov to continue embarrassing him. Hanako is, of course, in Trevor’s corner. Zalem has made his decision. When he asks Trevor about it, Trevor agrees—but under one condition. He wants to play Frank’s electric violin. Trevor tells Randy about visiting their mother, how she didn’t want anything to do with him, and how Frank (misguided as he is) really is a supportive father. Randy tricks Frank into going to Trevor’s concert that night. Trevor plays wildly, like a heavy-metal god in a concert-hall world. Zalem, Frank, and Randy are all proud of him. Critics rave, even Zoe is impressed when she sees it in the newspaper—but Trevor doesn’t bask in the success. He skips off to San Francisco to find Hanako. He convinces her to return to New York with him, and she agrees.


The author does a surprisingly good job taking a pedestrian ragtag-underdog-gets-his-chance-for-legitimate-success story and making it work, mostly on the strength of its characters. All of these people are flawed, make mistakes—in short, they talk and behave like real people within the context of a story that’s been done over and over again. The author does a very good job of simultaneously exploiting and obscuring the formula. Because of that, it works like a charm—a commercial story told in a straightforward, believable way.

One main criticism: Kawa is just too mean, too irredeemable an asshole. Granted, he’s supposed to be, but where are the extra layers the author applies to the other characters? What makes him so arrogant, so condescending, so jealous? He almost seems desperate—as if this is the one and only thing he has going for him, and it horrifies him that anybody could possibly be better. A nice, tiny moment of empathy with him would go a long way toward making him more fully realized. I’m not talking about him rescuing a box of kittens from a runaway truck—just a small, quiet moment where we can see for ourselves either a moment where he’s not pure evil, or a moment that really shows us why he’s so unpleasant.

I also have a suggestion. Though I like the story as told, I wonder what would happen if Trevor left Frank and Randy behind forever. It starts out in a “hero’s journey” mold, with Trevor realizing there’s nothing left for him in Brooklyn, but there’s a solid arc where Trevor discovers the approval he longs for from his mother was never there, while Frank—despite his obsession with heavy metal—really supported and helped to develop Trevor’s musical instinct. What would happen if this were more of a “created family” situation, where people like Zalem, Kolesnikov, and Hanako start to play the roles of his “new” family in the orchestra? Zalem has a paternal quality to him, and Hanako (despite the romance) plays a Randy-esque supportive/adoring role. It could be interesting to see Trevor create this new family in Manhattan, but still build off of what’s already there in the script. If Randy and Frank show up in the third act, and Trevor realizes that this new group he strove so hard to create is pretty much the same support system he already had with his real family. Trevor’s character would go through the same basic emotional journey; it would just have a different spin on Trevor’s experiences in Manhattan.

The story is very well-told, so that isn’t really a complaint, like “this is how the story should be.” It’s a minor “what if…?” scenario that I thought about while reading it. It might improve the screenplay, but it’s not a necessary change to make it succeed. It already does.

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The Manager

A few weeks ago, my friend Mark announced that he had taken an unpaid “e-internship” reading scripts for a manager in Los Angeles. He told me it was great: dude e-mails him scripts, he reads them and e-mails back coverage. He could do it all while working a full-time job in Chicago. At the end of the summer, he gets a good reference and/or a letter of recommendation, plus he gets all that experience, and maybe a guy who will look at his scripts. I thought it sounded nice, but maybe not the thing for me…

…until he gave me the icing on the cake: “So I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks, and the guy offered me a paid position this fall.” Paid position, eh? He told me, “This guy seems desperate for readers—I sent him my resume, not even expecting to hear back, and he responded in a few hours with a message that said, ‘Welcome aboard’ and a screenplay attached.” He gave me the contact info, and I sent my resume. Just as he said, that night, the guy e-mailed me a script.

When I interned last summer, I had the joy/torture of reading scripts that were mostly “production-ready,” or close to it. Some of them were pretty good; most of them weren’t, but they had certain elements that distinguished them from amateur work—usually professional dialogue and tight structure. “Professional,” of course, doesn’t mean “well-written”—definitely readable, natural, but still usually on-the-nose or plot-centric instead of character-centric. And some people like William Goldman, and probably these latter-day “script gurus” like Syd Field and Robert McKee insist that structure is the most important thing to a screenplay. I agree with that, but the key that many of these writers seemed to forget was that structure isn’t the only important thing. A series of meaningless plot points don’t make a good screenplay.

But alas, now that I’m on the other end of the spectrum—unpolished newbies looking for a shot—I’ve read some real crap. Unprofessional, not entertaining, no dramatic structure, no characters, some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever read, and sadly, many of these scripts won or received “honorable mention” in UCLA’s recent screenwriting contest. I’ve read many of the scripts on that list, and I thought one of them was very good; the rest are awful.

This has a two-pronged effect on me: on the one hand, it builds my confidence. I know I’m better than stuff that’s won a reasonably prestigious contest. On the other hand, it really depresses me that I haven’t yet “made it.” Yeah, I know, time, hard work, perserverance, et cetera, but it’s tragic to me that agents and managers are spraying their shorts over the UCLA winners, and the scripts are terrible. I have no idea how these people won, but I’d pay money to read some of the screenplays that ended up on the reject pile.

So I thought it was a good thing when this manager called me about 10 days ago, ostensibly to shoot the shit, then said, “You’re a writer, right?”

“Yup,” I said.

“Well, you do great analysis, so I’d really like to take a look at something you’ve written,” he said.

“Sure,” I said, thinking this was my chance: if this guy was seriously considering such rotten material, what I had would blow his mind.

“Yeah, so, just send me something in the next couple of days and I’ll look at it this weekend,” the manager said.

I agreed…but I didn’t trust him. Googling him and his company hadn’t really turned up anything, which made me a tiny bit suspicious—I knew, if nothing else, that he’d never gotten anything sold. I’d also noticed some weirdness in the e-mails he’d sent me that, combined with the phone conversations I’d had with him, led me to concoct and elaborate and (I now know) erroneous theory:

I originally thought he had a huge network of unpaid interns, all across the country, reading scripts for him. After a couple of weeks, he’d ask to see their material, then farm it out to other writers. Essentially, he played a numbers game: if he sent it to 10 interns and got 10 positive responses, he’d maybe send it to 10 more and say what kind of response he got, but more likely he’d just read the script himself and make a judgment. I thought two things when I realized this: shady, and…well, clever. But it explained the anonymity, his apparent animosity with interns knowing each other, strangely blind-carbon-copying what I assume is a whole mailing list but trying to make it seem like a “personalized” e-mail, et cetera.

I had one of my good friends in Los Angeles do some detective work for me. She has access to sites like IMDb Pro and Filmtracker, which I do not, and she’d be able to find out his contacts. She e-mailed me back and said he’s listed in the Hollywood Creative Directory and on Filmtracker, which could either be a sign that he’s legit or a sign that he has a lot of money to burn. (This led me to think that, in the grand scheme of things, if he wanted to do something like steal good scripts from people, it’d be much cheaper to get listed in legitimate places than to buy the screenplays.) She also uncovered some stuff that made me believe he was, quite simply, insane.

Strike one: a lot of bizarre, inflammatory (literally, what people on Usenet call “flaming”) posts regarding some hip-hop television show he supposedly produced (Filmtracker doesn’t show him as having any credits). The initial post would be hyping up the show; this would be followed by several posts mocking him or the show; and finally, he’d strike back with bizarre, obscenity-laced rants.

Strike two: he spent a lot of time planning, with a guy on a random fan forum, treatments and screenplays for a trilogy of live-action movies based on a semi-obscure comic book, which he claimed he’d pitch to a major studio. This was in October of last year. He personally posted several times in the thread, vacillating between stuff like “I’m a wannabe, too,” and “We pitch to the studio next week.” From there, I simply wasn’t sure of his credentials. Most people with the connections and access to pitch a big-budget franchise idea they don’t even own to a major studio don’t call themselves “wannabes.”

I didn’t know what to make of any of these forum posts. In both cases, one side showed an overall ignorance/naïvete that I don’t think would be acceptable as far as representation goes, while the other side showed an intense passion for the stuff he wants to do. I could think of worse qualities in a manager than passion for my work.

I still didn’t trust him, though. Mark’s bottom line was, “Don’t give him any money. Ever.” This is obvious, of course, but—not to sound too arrogant—to me, handing over my screenplays all willy-nilly is pretty much like handing him money. I happen to think, based on my own opinion and the opinions of several I trust, that I have a good store of material built up. I can’t just hand it out to any asshole who calls himself a manager. Sure, I’m desperate for steady employment in a field I care about, and I’m desperate for anything like a foot in the door, but I’m not desperate enough to be an idiot.

I had a plan. I have a friend in a band who’s an entertainment attorney; in exchange for updates to her band’s site, she’s offered me free legal advice (always prefaced with “I AM NOT YOUR LAWYER, but…”). I’d ask the manager for a release form. If he gave me a hassle on that, I’d know he was shady and refuse to send him anything. If he didn’t, I’d send it to my lawyer friend. She’d look it over, tell me whether or not it was acceptable, and either I’d sign it if it was or she’d rewrite it if it wasn’t.

You might be wondering, “Gee, Stan, why are you so obsessed with a release form? Surely you had your screenplays copyrighted and registered with the Writer’s Guild of America…” I did the latter, because it’s easier and cheaper: just e-mail them a PDF and PayPal $25, and you’re registered for five years. For reasons I can’t figure out, I’ve been told that WGA registration is “meaningless,” and copyrighting is the only thing that affords real protection. But I…hadn’t done that, because it costs almost twice as much and you have to go to the effort of printing a hard copy and mailing it. Damn my laziness!

But that’s only part of the story—even if I sent out the copyright stuff before I sent this guy the scripts (and I sent them out last weekend), there’s another layer to the horror of intellectual property law. Because there are so many derivative movies being made all the time, I have the burden of proving not only that I wrote a similar screenplay (because that’s old news) but that I had a business relationship with this person and that he did, in fact, read my screenplay prior to selling his own similar screenplay or making his similar movie. That’s where the release form comes in handy.

Of course, it’d be nice and fun if you could go on down to the Library of Congress, pull out my screenplay, and say, “Ha-HA! This is exactly the same.” But it won’t be, because if he’s smart enough to have a system to steal screenplays, he’s not going to be dumb enough to start sending around my script, verbatim, with his name on it. Even if he does, it’ll go so far through the development wringer that it’ll come out unrecognizable. Chances are I’ll never even know about the theft until it either sells or goes into production, and it’ll be far beyond what my script looks like.

Some might wonder, if the burden of proof is a direct result of every movie in Hollywood having similar ideas behind them, can’t you still shop around your original script around? They always say, ideas aren’t copyrightable—it’s all in the execution. Well, it’s probable that I could. In fact, it’s probable that if a movie that started out as my stolen screenplay is successful, that’ll be better for me in the long run, because it’ll be easier to sell something that’s already succeeded. If it fails, though, I’m screwed.

Besides, what if they change it just enough for me to theoretically not have any “actionable” claims, but enough that I could never sell the screenplay? Intellectual property law is a nightmare, so I’d rather not have to get embroiled in anything crazy. As such, I’d like to be safe and smart.

So I asked the manager for a release form, and he wrote me back, “No release form is unnecessary.” I still haven’t figured out if this is a typo or some kind of shrewd, crafty response to confuse me. If it’s the latter, it sure worked; on top of this puzzling statement, he reaffirmed (for the third or fourth time in two days) how much he looked forward to reading my scripts this weekend. What is the fucking rush? I’ve always learned that in business, if the other guy is trying to put a clock on things, run away.

I wrote back and insisted he send me a release form. I actually figured he wouldn’t, and then I could cop out and refuse to send anything. Sadly, he called my bluff. Ironically, his release form made me trust him even less. Of the six terms listed, three of them were clauses that essentially said, “I hereby give you the right to steal the ideas presented in my screenplay and will be entitled to no compensation or legal action if you steal them.” I didn’t even need a lawyer to go over this—it was pure bullshit.

I was at a crossroads. I wanted to have it both ways: not send him my scripts, but still read for him. This was mostly motivated by my desire to get steady employment as a reader in the fall. He can be as shady as he wants with other people, so long as they’re sending him scripts for me to read on a full-time, paid basis. (At the time, I was way ahead of myself; he hadn’t even offered me a job. He has since then.) But I also saw it as a good opportunity to continue feeling him out, to try and figure out if he’s a total fraud who wants to steal scripts, or just a newbie manager who really is passionate and wants to do well but just…isn’t so competent. Maybe from inexperience, maybe from ignorance—who knows? I certainly didn’t.

Sunday morning, I hit on a good excuse. I told him I was blowing off e-mails and being evasive about sending him stuff because I thought the scripts needed minor polishing, but it turned into major revisions, and I didn’t feel comfortable sending him anything that was less than perfect. He accepted that but maintained he was eager to read them “soon.” Since then, he’s kinda gotten off my back. I’ve also had more time to seek out information about him.

I still don’t know whether or not he’s a fraud, but I looked up many of the titles and authors on the screenplays I’ve written and have discovered that a number of these scripts—while terrible—are written by actual, professional writers in other areas (mostly comics). So he has clients. He’s also “opened up” a little more in the e-mails he’s sent me, and I’ve been swapping info with my e-intern friend. From that, I’ve deduced that he does know what he’s talking about regarding these scripts. Or, at least, he and I are on a similar wavelength as far as what we think is good or bad. I was worried that, even if he had the production company and studio contacts he claimed, he might fuck himself by sending over a lot of inferior scripts. So far, the only one he’s suggested sending out has been the only one I thought was exceptional. That’s a good sign.

In my Googling, I found a list of companies he supposedly has contacts with. Over the next week or two, I intend to call most (or all) of them trying to dig up information on him—have they heard of him, his company, the writers he represents, and what do they think of him/them? If I get a lot of positive responses in the first few, I probably won’t go down the whole list. So we’ll see. Like my e-intern pal says, either we’re getting in on the ground floor of something great, or this guy will fold like a cheap card-table and we’ll be cut loose.

But at least we’ll have the experience.

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Heaven’s Mandate

Author: Boris Layupan

Genre: Action/Martial-Arts Epic

Storyline: 3

Dialogue: 2

Characterization: 2

Writer’s Potential: 2

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]




A spiritual nun’s journey leads her to become embroiled in an imperial revolution.


Six-year-old CHING and her family of peasant farmers—along with the rest of their village—are taken prisoner by a Germanic tribe led by LO. Soon after, a half-Turkish half-Iranian warrior named AN LUSHAN leads his soldiers in an assault on the camp, freeing the peasants. Ching’s father sends her into a Buddhist convent, where she learns spiritual enlightenment and swordfighting. When she’s 21, ABBESS YU (her spiritual leader) sends Ching on a quest with another young nun, SENG. Yu gives Ching a sword called the Heavenglaive, which legend says will be incredibly powerful in the hands of the right person—only rivaled by its “brother” sword, the Dragonrill.

Ching and Seng set about on their journey. On their way, they run across Ching’s village and find that her family has died, the victim of overtaxation. She swears to avenge her family’s death. Meanwhile, in a capital city called Luoyang, a woman in her 30s named KEUI-FEI practices with the Dragonrill sword. She is EMPEROR LI LONGJI’s lady—the woman behind the man. He doesn’t make decisions or have opinions—everything he says or does is filtered through her, and she uses this to her advantage.

Ching and Seng arrive at the aftermath of a battle. They meet with an older An Lushan, who rejects them as some sort of joke the Shaolin monks are playing on him. He does battle with Ching, who matches him. It ends in a stalemate, and he acknowledges her skill and allows her presence. Lushan leads his men—accompanied by Ching and Seng—to a mountain pass blocked by Chinese military. Baffled, unable to figure out a way around, Lushan’s angry, until Ching and Seng show him a smaller pass they used earlier.

The following day, Ching and Seng save the day once again, helping Lushan’s forces past a river. He reveals his intentions to go to Luoyang and do away with the emperor. They take the city, then the palace. Longji and Keui-fei are about to make their escape when Ching approaches them with the Heavenglaive. Keui-fei gets Longji out of there, then battles Ching with her Dragonrill. It’s another draw, and Keui-fei leaves before more soldiers can take her out. Lushan takes his seat at the Emperor’s throne. Ching accosts her about soldiers out raping and pillaging in the city. Lushan is unconcerned; he has to plan to continue on to the country’s capital, Chang’an. Chang’an is exactly where Longji, Keui-fei, and many of the imperial ministers have fled to. They prepare a counterattack.

Lushan learns that much of the population hasn’t registered for taxation. He announces that swift punishments will come to those who don’t register. Ching looks on, disappointed. That evening, Lushan and the soldiers celebrate. Ching is unhappy. She takes her grievances to Lushan, and they sleep together. The next morning, Ching is horrified for defying her vows. Lushan decides to distribute grain at lower prices instead of taxing citizens.

In Chang’an, Longji is disappointed to discover that most of the province supports Lushan. They enlist Lo and his Germanic warriors to fight Lushan’s forces. He agrees, noting they have an old score to settle. After doing a lot of good works in Luoyang, Ching and Seng walk through the garden. They’re attacked by Longji’s men; Seng is killed, and Ching is kidnapped and taken back to Chang’an. Keui-fei tries to enlist Ching’s aid on Longji’s side. She refuses. Later, Longji has Ching taken to his chamber to ask why so many are in support of Lushan and not Longji.

Lushan and Lo do battle; Lushan’s side wins and proceeds on toward Chang’an. When Keui-fei sees the influence Ching is having over Longji and his ruling, she tries to have her killed. Longji stops her. Lushan and his warriors strategize their attack on Chang’an. Keui-fei wants Longji to flee to Sichuan, insisting they execute Ching before they leave. Longji refuses, saying Ching should come with them. Keui-fei and Ching do battle with their respective mystical swords; Keui-fei wins, leaving Ching to die. Lushan arrives just a moment too late.

Six years later, return to devastate Luoyang. Apparently they squashed Lushan’s rebellion. Longji insists they will rebuild China.


No characters. No defined personalities, no real character-based conflicts, ham-fisted and cliché-ridden dialogue—all of this made this script an exceptionally tough and lifeless read. What conflicts exist (usually contrived clichés) are settled by the sword, but these action sequences are more tedious than exciting because the author never builds up a level of concern over the characters or jeopardy over what happens. Ching is arguably the main character, and her death should be the most devastating moment in the screenplay, but the author never establishes any kind of characterization, so the death just feels like another hollow plot device.

On the subject of hollow plot devices, the story never takes off. Part of it can be blamed on the lack of interesting characters—nobody seems to have any kind of motivation or clear agendas to do the things they do. Why does An Lushan have such a strong desire to annihilate the emperor? Even before that, why does he disrupt the Germanic tribe’s kidnapping of peasants? The big question for not just Lushan but every character in this script is a big fat “why?!” The only character who comes close to having any kind of motivation is Ching, who is angered over the death of her family. To a lesser extent, Keui-fei’s desire to murder Ching seems decently motivated.

These characters have room for complexities that go untapped: Why do An and Lushan fall in love? It’s the least convincing romance I’ve ever read on paper. What compels them? Why is Keui-fei so obsessed with being a Machiavellian puppeteer of the emperor? What, exactly, is she getting out of it? Is she the sole cause of Longji’s poor ruling? To that end, why does Longji allow her to call the shots? What is it about her that’s so special to him? Why can’t he see through her? On a general level, what’s the point of Lo’s story? He starts the story, disappears for 60 pages, and returns to get killed almost immediately? I’ve never heard of roaming bands of Germanic tribes living in ancient China, so that was an interesting detail, but it amounts to nothing more than that.

Without any sort of motivation for any of the actions, it’s exceptionally difficult to gain momentum in the story. The structure feels weak as a result—there are no clear act breaks, only the vaguest notion of plot points, and nothing resembling arcs. Much of what could be a story arc—Lushan’s rise from successful, supported empire-usurper to utter failure—is eliminated in an abrupt flash-forward in the last few pages. It’s kind of astounding how little this feels like reading a dramatic work. Even with undeveloped characters, it doesn’t tell a compelling story.

Perhaps if the characters are fleshed out, there’s hope for this screenplay. Figure out who these people really are, create character arcs, figure out who the protagonist and antagonist are and clearly define those roles, and pick apart the bones of this story to create something that feels more structured, more interesting, and more entertaining.

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The Dark Tower

Finished the Dark Tower this afternoon. Good Lord. The ending—I’m talking the last two or three pages—almost redeemed at least this last book from being a total failure, but the more I think of it, the more I just feel horribly cheated by Stephen King.

Yeah, yeah, I know the whole Comic Book Guy routine—he doesn’t owe me anything, but I read the first three books in 1994, and they’re nothing short of astonishing. I’d rate the second one as probably the best thing he’s ever written, and the first and third rank up there. I had to wait a few years for the fourth book, which was terrible and a big disappointment—which only made the (all told) decade I waited for him to finally finish the story more unbearable. “He has to redeem himself for this crap heap of a book…right? Right?!”

Wrong, motherfuckers. I’d rather be sentenced to an eternity spent reading that fourth book over and over again than ever touch books five, six, and seven again.

Full disclosure: I actually really, really liked the sixth book. It geared me up for what I assumed would be a kick-ass ending. It was short and sweet (for a Stephen King book—dude doesn’t shut up!), and very focused and lean because most of the legwork to set up the plots and subplots had been established in the previous BORING AS SHIT installment. However, in hindsight of what all those storylines became in the seventh book, I’ll gladly lump Song of Susannah together with Wolves of the Calla and The Dark Tower as the three worst books he’s ever written. No, maybe Black House is still worse. Tough call.


There may be some spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to dance around the big events because I’m not convinced anyone cares enough for me to tag every spoiler (and I’m not convinced any of these will be spoilers if you’re DT fan, even if you haven’t finished the books). Also, I think this should serve as a warning if anyone is a fan—you should willingly let me spoil it, because my vague synopses and criticisms couldn’t possibly be worse than the books themselves.

So the main thing I really hated about these last three books were the meaningless entrances and exits of characters from King’s other books. It was kind of cute/creepy when the gunslinger and his ka-tet stumbled into the universe of The Stand. It was less cute and not at all creepy when other random characters started popping in.

I’ve been outspoken for a long time about my disgust over King intentionally writing novels and short stories whose sole purpose of existence is to bridge the “real” world with the universe/story he created in DT. Aside from a trip to Iowa where I had so little to do I kept picking up Stephen King paperbacks Lucy had lying around her apartment and reading out of sheer boredom, I haven’t tried to read a “new” Stephen King novel or short story since Black House. Before that, it was Insomnia. These two rank among the worst books he’s written, and—not coincidentally—they both exist almost exclusively to tie two of his earlier works to the DT world (The Talisman and It, respectively).

To add insult to injury, none of this means anything. None of the random DT references and character “cameos” in other books, none of the references to his other novels within the DT—none of it amounts to jack shit in the long run. These characters, who have been gracelessly inserted into the Dark Tower story, serve three functions:

  1. “Oh isn’t that cute—it’s that guy from that short story about the kid who meets the guy everyone thinks he’s crazy”-type recognition factor. (I list this first because, I hate to say it, but I really think this is the only reason King did this—about as close to written masturbation as you can get without a mild hallucinogen.)
  2. To run into the gunslinger and the ka-tet, vomit out as much expository dialogue as possible in a short amount of time, maybe involve themselves in a plot point or two, then either die or disappear into the sunset.
  3. To keep the story moving. At this point in the story, at the places these folks visit on the last few legs of their journey, they wouldn’t discover any of the information they get without help from these other characters.

Sure, King could have put them in other places. Like, say, instead of dominating the whole of Wolves of the Calla with an extraordinarily bland rip-off of The Magnificent Seven—well, I don’t know where he could have set it, but he spends so much goddamn time on that stupid storyline, he could have just as easily removed the entire thing and had a book-length number of pages to come up with something without inserting characters from other books.

The worst affront? Inserting himself into the story. Sure, it’s occasionally amusing that even in the fictional world, everybody either thinks he’s a hack writer or incredibly lazy (or both), but—WHY THE FUCK DID HE WRITE HIMSELF INTO THE STORY? What does it add, other than convolution? In the end, it adds nothing.

And that’s the biggest disappointment: the conclusions of every single character’s stories, the conclusion of the overall plot itself, and the very last pages of the book render the entire seven-volume book pointless. Every death—meaningless. All seven books, the epic quest, the drawing of the three from our world, the plot developments, character developments—meaningless. The villains, whom he spends the cours of three entire books developing and who are both killed in about 30 seconds. The Tower itself—meaningless. Right, right, it’s a metaphor, but I ain’t talking in metaphors, I’m talking in fucking endings, I’m talking about making an investment in seven books and, at this point, 12 years (for some who were with it from the beginning, more than 20), for a book that amounts to nothing.

I’m not even necessarily talking about the very, very, very last-three-pages end, either. I’m talking about the last, oh, 100-150 pages, where everything really comes to a boil. Every single thing that happens is just, for lack of a better word, lame.

It’s incredibly disappointing that King himself spent over 30 years on this project, and aside from forming the ka-tet and continuing the quest for the Tower, the overarching “save the universe” plot itself didn’t really kick in until the fifth book. It’s just horribly disappointing that King decided to go with these storylines—writing himself into it, bringing back characters, the stupid “we must get back to America-side and form a corporation” bullshit, Susannah’s pregnancy. I was even willing to put up with that “who’s really the father and what kind of freak am I carrying?” pregnancy, the most operatic of all soap opera plotlines, if it had led to something remotely interesting. In the end, it didn’t.

After creating such a rich universe, such great characters, and hinting at interesting storyline possibilities, it’s tragic and disappointing that these three books are the final product.

It’s funny—a few pages before the epilogue, King has this pretentious and obnoxious rant about how he’s fine ending it where it is (where there hasn’t even been an actual fucking ending) and remembering these characters without knowing what happens to the gunslinger inside the Tower. It’s irritating because he implies we’re assholes for wanting an ending with real finality after investing time and energy in over a half-dozen books that span two decades, thousands of pages long.

Me? I really, really wish I could travel back in time (even mentally, to attempt to erase these books from my head) and remember the characters on Blaine the Mono, in the middle of a riddling contest with an insane, sentient train, unsure of where they’d stop (if they stopped or survived), their fates uncertain. Sure, you knew they’d survive—but what would happen once the monorail stopped? The hints of storylines and possibilities all spread out before you, allowing you to just pluck at random and come up with any story you want, sharing your own imagination with the imagination that created this world in the first place.

So yes, I’d recommend people read the first three books: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Wastelands. And sit back, contemplative but pleased, in love with these characters and this world, trying to guess what could happen next. Because guess what—anything, and I mean anything that your imagination comes up with will be at least one million times better than anything that happens in Wizard & Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower.

Fuckin’ Stephen King, man.

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